News-Argus Tennis Player of the Year -- Leslie Sasser
By Rudy Coggins
Published in Sports on November 19, 2004 1:57 PM
PIKEVILLE -- Dedication.
"You've got to have all three of those (traits) be successful in tennis," said veteran Charles B. Aycock coach Luke Vail.
Vail addressed those characteristics while discussing the play -- and career -- of tennis standout Leslie Sasser. The soft-spoken senior listened quietly and blushed from Vail's praising remarks.
But, who could argue with him?
Sasser diligently worked in the offseason on every aspect of her game -- forehand, backhand, drop volleys, overheads, service and return. She could have easily tired after toiling through those repetitious drills on hot summer afternoons, but she didn't.
"She's been really dedicated all four years," Vail said.
Sasser spent every after-school practice hitting against top-seeded Raychel Batts. Batts offered tips and advice to Sasser, who eagerly soaked up every bit of information she received. Realizing how much her game had improved, Sasser felt confident entering her final season.
Vail noticed her self-confidence during the first match and spent little time giving counsel between court changes. Sasser seemed to be in her own world and refused to give her opponents any chance of winning.
Sasser recorded single-season, career-best victory totals in singles (23) and doubles (29), and -- as usual -- helped the Golden Falcons continue their mastery of conference opponents. Aycock advanced to the final four in the N.C. High School Athletic Association dual-team playoffs for the second time in Sasser's career.
For all those accomplishments, Sasser is the 2004 News-Argus tennis player of the year.
"She was really beaming with confidence and felt like this year she could beat anybody on a given day and played really well," Vail said. "One of the biggest differences is her forehand got better, her ground strokes were good and her first serve was better.
"She turned the corner in a lot of areas that maybe before she didn't feel comfortable with."
Sasser's backhand was her biggest weapon. She set up opponents for a lot of points, including easy putaways at the net because that allowed her to hit backhand cross-court shots or passing shots down the line.
The solid backhand play proved to be suitable with doubles partner Carlyn Claiborne, who possessed a strong forehand. The duo became a lethal combination as they won the NCHSAA Class 3-A eastern regional and carried a 28-0 mark into the state tournament. They finished among the top eight after falling in the quarterfinal round.
Sasser agreed she and Claiborne worked well together. Claiborne, an out-spoken junior, handled most of the strategy. She also helped Sasser relax when she got too aggressive.
Their main strength, said Vail, was their movement.
"If all else fails, we can go two back to the baseline and try to get pin-point passing shots," he said. "Anytime they were back, we felt like we were in a good situation even when the other team was at the net because our ground strokes were powerful from both sides.
"Leslie is a very consistent player off the forehand and backhand side, but more aggressive on the backhand because she felt more confident there. There's no doubt her backhand was her offensive weapon."
Sasser couldn't explain why her backhand is better than her forehand. She added that hitting with Batts makes you work from both sides, and you learn how to shorten points.
Opponents attempted to force Sasser into hitting more forehand returns and tried to pull her into the net. However, Sasser mastered mixing a drop shot into her arsenal and she learned how to hit winners -- usually a backhand passing shot.
Sasser never imagined going undefeated in either singles or doubles. She suffered her first singles loss in the eastern dual-team final against East Chapel Hill's Julia Howard.
Sasser isn't sure what her future holds after she leaves C.B. Aycock. She's certainly etched her name in the record books with these numbers -- 85-7 in singles and 94-11 in doubles. The Golden Falcons prevailed in 81 of 95 dual matches during that stretch.
"You rarely expect anyone to go undefeated if you play good teams like we do," Vail said. "At the same time, I knew she had the potential to be a really strong player because she's better than most of the number one players of any team we would play.
"She had a tactically-sound game this year."
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